In case you missed it, Russian socialite Miroslava Duma is catching quite a bit of heat for a photo she posted on her website yesterday. Duma wanted to feature her friend and fellow fashion It-girl and art collector Dasha Zhukova on her website Buro 24/7. Where Duma ran into trouble, though, was in the story’s accompanying art: Zhukova is posed atop a piece of work by Bjarne Melgaard, which riffs on British pop-artist Allen Jones, who created an entire series of works of women as tables, chairs, and other inanimate objects. Zhukova is nonchalantly sitting on a black woman-as-chair, posed as if there’s nothing at all amiss with her actions.
In reality, though, the image is problematic. For one, there’s the historical construct of a white woman sitting very literally on the back of a black woman, and all that implies. It “others” black bodies—turns them into objects, fetishizes them and dehumanizes them. Jones also made art with white women’s bodies, too, and it’s just as troubling:
But the choice to put Zhukova on a “black” chair adds an extra layer of exploitation.
Almost immediately there was an uproar. Fashoin Bomb Daily noted that the piece had the unfortunate synergy of coming out on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (which is obviously not a holiday in Russia, but still). “As Dasha stares out at the camera in the light filled room, she appears the total opposite of the compromised black woman on the floor,” writes FBD’s Claire. “The message: white dominance and superiority, articulated in a seemingly serene yet overtly degrading way.”
In response, Duma first re-cropped the photo, which seemed like an overt admission of guilt. She then released the following statement, via Instagram:
“Dear all, Buro24/7.4u team and I personally would like to express our sincerest apology to anyone who we have offended and hurt. It was ABSOLUTELY not our intention. We are against racism or gender inequality or anything that infringes upon anyone’s rights. We love, respect and look up to people regardless of their race, gender or social status. The chair in the photo should only be seen as a piece of art which was created by British Pop-Artist Allen Jones, and not as any form of racial discrimination. In our eyes everyone is equal. And we love everybody.”
But you can’t just “look at a piece of art” without understanding it within a social context. And by placing a wealthy white socialite on such a chair for a photo shoot, you are absolutely sending a message to your audience about how you view racial politics. Duma may claim not to be racist, but she is certainly ignorant about how her actions and editorial choices are perceived by others. She should also get better at apologizing: Saying “I’m sorry” to anyone who’s been “offended or hurt,” isn’t much of an apology.
Dasha Zhukova offered up a similar non-apology in the dust up. She wrote:
“The chair pictured in the Buro 24/7 website interview is an artwork created by Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard, one of a series that reinterprets art historical works from artist Allen Jones as a commentary on gender and racial politics. Its use in this photo shoot is regrettable as it took the artwork totally out of its intended context, particularly given that Buro 24/7′s release of the article coincided with the important celebration of the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I regret allowing an artwork with such charged meaning to be used in this context. I utterly abhor racism and would like to apologize to those offended by my participation in this shoot. Garage Magazine has a strong track record of promoting diversity and racial and gender equality in the worlds of art and fashion, and will continue in our mission to stir positive debate on these and other issues.”
For his part, Allen Jones, the sculptor whose work was copied to produce the chair, says the work was never intended for actual use. “It’s the first time I’ve seen someone using it as actual furniture and I think it would be rather uncomfortable.”
What do you think of the photos, and of the controversy?